Award Winning Research: Resilience as an Exciting New Agenda

Most of my work to date has dealt with what most people would consider sad things; things we’d rather not think about. Generally, I study health and societal problems that primarily impact older adults. Chronic disease, disablement, dementia, and death are not easy topics of conversation. However, I find them tremendously important to write about, especially the documentation and highlighting of disparities in health and resources for African Americans and people from underprivileged backgrounds. Over the last decade or so, my work has consistently shown the long reaching impact of deprivation for disadvantaged Americans, and especially how much early life matters in how we accumulate (or fail to accumulate) all kinds of financial, human, psychological, and social resources. These, in turn, shape how we age and how well we age. When we think of ourselves as older adults, we want to be happy, vibrant, surrounded by loved ones, and in good health. Unfortunately, we are more than the sum of our choices. The way society shapes us and allows access to resources is a huge determinant in our ability to reach this aging ideal. Much of my research has sought to show how much more there is to healthy aging than running on a treadmill or doing crossword puzzles, and how early in life it really starts. This has been very fulfilling work and a catalyst for me professionally as well, earning numerous awards and prestigious grant funding.

Although it happened reluctantly in my graduate and professional training, I am admittedly a “numbers person”. I was taught that illuminating the magnitude and importance of a societal problem is one way to get people to pay attention and to support community and policy solutions. In terms of public health, we have learned this year just how important it is to have good diagnosis counts and risk calculations related to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of my work to date deals with advanced statistical procedures that I’ve introduced, hybridized, and adapted to specific topics. They are complex enough, understandably, to produce boredom in most people I meet socially and anxiety in many of my students. To me they are endlessly intriguing, an ever-shifting puzzle to accurately map human experiences over time, or to capture or clarify a particularly challenging social issue. I also love teaching these methods to even the weariest or most skeptical students. The skills empower them for high quality jobs in various settings and give them the ability to both activity scrutinize and potentially extend the current research on any social or health problem.

Although my research and mentorship maintain many longstanding themes, they have also recently shifted in a more optimistic and potentially transformative direction in the last few years. With my fantastic colleague Dr. Dawn Carr and a bunch of talented students, I have been recently studying the psychological resilience of older adults. It seems fitting given the historical time. We all need to feel resilient to the pandemic, violence, and social unrest that have seemingly defined our country this last year. For some people the process of resilience is nothing new, brought about by lifelong setbacks, hardships, and even traumas. As a researcher, it is a new puzzle, how and why some people adapt to even the direst challenges. Where does resilience come from? Is it an inherent quality or a learned skill? Is it good for our health or does it come at a price? Who benefits from it and who does not? We are now studying the resilience of older veterans, the potential impact of resilience in delaying functional and cognitive impairment in later life, and whether those with higher education have more resources or time to practice successful adaptation. I’m still using my advanced/boring statistical procedures, but I’m applying them in new ways.

So far, we are finding one consistent theme, that resilience is a powerful resource in later life. Unfortunately, I can’t change how people were born or grew up decades ago. I have, however, documented how important their early and lifelong experiences are for aging processes. Now I might be able to show the importance of something that could be bolstered in later life by interventions and good, equitable policies. In 2021, I’m throwing the optimism we’ve all needed this year into my work, my research, and my students. Even in small steps, it feels good to be promoting a more resilient future.

You can read more about this research here.

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